a series of interesting choices thoughts on game design from paul sottosanti


designing magic: ravnica & mtgo vanguard

This is the third part in a series of posts about working at Wizards of the Coast on Magic: the Gathering. If you're new to the series, you might want to start at Part One.


I honestly don't remember Ravnica development that well at this point. I wasn't originally on the team, but was asked to join at some point during the middle of development by the illustrious Brian Schneider. I was already a huge fan of the set ever since hearing the guilds idea, especially since they reminded me of the four houses in the ancient Arena book which was a childhood favorite. The development team had almost all of the savvy and experienced developers from that time period: Aaron Forsythe, Henry Stern, Matt Place, Mark Gottlieb, and Brian. The combination of a strong team plus a beloved final product made this a great experience.

I only designed a single card in Ravnica: Shadow of Doubt. I simply followed these three handy steps on how to design a card that will affect constructed:

  1. Think of something that players often want to do in Magic.
  2. Make a card that says they can't do that. Bonus points if it's the first one.
  3. Cost it aggressively and/or make it a cantrip.

Seriously though, one of my favorite things about Magic is that whatever your opponent is trying to do, there's likely some card out there that's strong against it. I think my love for that stems from the format that I played against my brother growing up, where the loser of each match would get to change their deck however they wanted. It was endless fun tinkering with our decks to beat the specific challenges. Brother adds a bunch of flying creatures? In goes Hurricane. He switches to an artifact based combo? Time for Shatterstorm. So I was always looking for ways to give people additional tools when a certain style of deck was giving them trouble. The most recent apparent example of this from R&D is Torpor Orb, as a tool to counter decks that just abuse endless "enters the battlefield" triggers.

There was a lot of discussion about pushing the card to three mana. Eventually the decision was made to release it at two mana, and it debuted to some strong buzz on the rumor websites. I remember sending an (in hindsight, embarrassing) email to the department with a bunch of quotes about people's excitement for the card, thanking the team for letting it go out at two mana. Actually, there was some amount of embarrassment even while writing it, as I usually try to exercise more humility, but my exuberance carried through regardless.

A final aside on Shadow of Doubt: hybrid cards are really, really difficult to design. Primarily you only have these options:

  1. An effect or combination of effects that can be done by either color. These easily could've been mono-colored, so the main benefit of hybrid mana is that it makes them easier to cast. (Elvish Hexhunter)
  2. An effect from one color plus an effect from another color. These should really just be gold cards instead, so most of the time R&D manages to avoid them. (Spiteful Visions and Thoughtweft Gambit both tread this line)
  3. Something that references colors or basic land types, so that it's castable in a deck with only one matching color but more powerful in a deck matching both colors. These fit the concept well but tend to have a lot of text. (Batwing Brume or Selkie Hedge-Mage)
  4. Something that hasn't really been done before, so doesn't necessarily have an established color. (Enchanted Evening or Rosheen Meanderer)

Shadow of Doubt is the fourth option, which helped quite a bit. There aren't that many effects that both work within the rules and haven't been done before, so when someone found an interesting one it tended to survive.

Ravnica FFL Testing

Searing Meditation was one of my favorite cards from the set, and was the centerpiece of one of my more successful decks. I've always had a soft spot for these straightforward "build around me" cards, and have been enjoying abusing Rage Extractor in the triple NPH drafts on MTGO recently. I vaguely remember Searing Meditation having either no activation cost or only a single mana cost initially, but at this point we had learned enough from Rift Slide decks that it quickly went to two mana. Here was the list:

3 Terashi's Grasp
4 Lifening Rift (the playtest name for Searing Meditation, and a terrible pun)
3 Phoenix Angel (Firemane Angel)
3 Gifts Ungiven
4 Wrath of God
4 Pink Bolt (Lightning Helix)
4 Ghost-Lit Redeemer
3 White Shrine (Honden of Cleansing Fire)
3 Red Shrine (Honden of Infinite Rage)
3 White Shoal (Shining Shoal)
4 WR Egg (probably Boros Signet)
4 WU Land
4 RU Land
4 WR Land
4 WR Pain
3 Mountain
3 Plains

As you can see, I'd now been in the FFL long enough that I was starting to abbreviate heavily in my decklists. The same thing happens with your proxies; when I first showed up at Wizards, I would write out the full name and mana cost in appropriate colored sharpies, plus much of the actual gameplay text, and maybe even the creature type. Fast forward a couple years and it was more like a description/nickname instead of the actual name, and a mana cost, all in black sharpie. Brian Schneider at this point had slimmed the process down to the bare minimum: a single word (or sometimes number) written in ballpoint pen in the center of the card, which always made playing him an interesting adventure.

The next deck was all about keeping an eye on Blazing Shoal. We'd made the tough decision to print it in Betrayers of Kamigawa despite the threat of some (extremely rare) first turn kills, and now that the Ravnica team was interested in printing the first cheap double striker in history, it deserved another look.

4 Myojin of Infinite Rage
2 Bloodfire Colossus
4 Leonin Skyhunter
4 Double Striker (Boros Swiftblade)
4 Psionic Blast (Char)
3 White Shoal (Shining Shoal)
4 Red Shoal (Blazing Shoal)
4 Isamaru
4 Haste Flier (Skyknight Legionnaire)
4 Jitte
4 WR Pain
4 WR Switch
3 Metalland (Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion?)
6 Plains
1 L Plains (Eiganjo Castle)
4 Mountains
1 L Mountain (Shinka, the Bloodsoaked Keep)

Unsurprisingly this deck was powerful and volatile but far too inconsistent, especially with cards like Sickening Shoal and Last Gasp around to provide cheap creature removal.

Finally, this last deck was made to test out the power of the Selesnya guild backed by Doubling Season. At this point I had cemented myself as a primarily Johnny-style deckbuilder (with a generous helping of Spike), being most focused on discovering interesting interactions and combos. I mostly left it to Matt Place and others to build the true Spike decks that consisted of all the best cards in the format, and if my decks could hold their own, I knew they were worth pursuing.

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Selesnya Evangel
4 Savannah Guildmage (Selesnya Guildmage)
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
3 More Counters Please (Doubling Season)
3 Spontaneous Germs (Seed Spark?)
2 Asceticism (Privileged Position)
2 Selesnya conclave (probably Chorus of the Conclave)
2 Meloku
2 Time of Need
3 Position (Glare of Subdual)
3 Umezawa's Jitte
4 W/G Dual
4 W/G Pain
4 G/U Pain
1 Island
4 Forest
4 Plains
1 L Forest (Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers)
1 L Plains (Eiganjo Castle)

Clearly we had now discovered the power of Jitte and had begun including it in many of our decks. I seem to remember the Doubling Season portion of this deck proving to be a bit "too cute", but it did show yet again time that token creatures plus an Opposition style effect was powerful. Many Japanese players ended up using a more focused version of that strategy at the World Championships that year.

The "Friggorid" Deck

One of the benefits of working at Wizards is a fully stocked Magic Online (MTGO) account with plenty of boosters and four of every single card in existence. The double edged sword was that we weren't allowed to draft, since they were sanctioned and paid out prizes, and employees winning draft queues could easily cause accusations of cheating from the community. So the only thing to do with the account was to build wacky decks and have fun battling in the casual or tournament practice rooms. As such, I was always on the lookout for fun decklists to try out.

In early December, John Rizzo, a favorite author of mine and friend from Pittsburgh, wrote an article entitled The Vase in which he included an extended decklist focused around the Dredge mechanic and Ichorid. I had played very little Extended at this point, but it sounded intruiging so I built the deck on Magic Online and took it for a spin in the tournament practice room. Suddenly I was crushing everyone. I tweaked the deck a little bit and then built a physical copy of it to bring to the World Championships in Japan where I was doing event coverage. (As an aside, traveling to locations like Yokohama was one of the great perks of the job, although doing coverage was also a demanding schedule at a time when what I really wanted to do was wander the event, hanging out with my friends from the tournament scene and soaking up information to bring back to Wizards. For that reason I think I wasn't always in the best of moods during the events, especially since I'm a slow writer and it felt like literally all of my time was spent cooped up in a back room working on the articles. So if anyone I worked with at those events is reading this, sorry about that! I'm usually much more pleasant to be around.)

Anyway, during the day when everyone was playing Extended at Worlds, I managed to find some time between rounds and challenged the pros to some games with the Ichorid deck. As mentioned before, I hadn't played much Extended at all, and didn't even really know what to expect from their decks, plus I was somewhat out of practice. As it turned out, I immediately started crushing them too. It was almost like the deck was playing a completely different game, and theirs just weren't fast enough to compete or couldn't interact with what I was doing. From there the hype really took off, and here's an excerpt from Ted Knutson's coverage at GP Charlotte on where it went from there:

In Japan, he kept smashing people with the deck between rounds, creating a buzz around a deck constructed by a guy known more for rants against intentional draws than deck design. Then Osyp Lebedowicz played the deck to a Top 4 finish in a Grand Prix Trial, and Thomas Pannell fell just short of qualifying for Hawaii with the deck in the Sunday PTQ at Worlds. Heavy-duty playtesting ensued in the following weeks, the deck was tweaked and tuned, and Mike Flores wrote about his own Top 8 PTQ performance with the deck this week, thus further ballooning the hype. When I talked to the pros last night, it seemed like more than half of them were playing the deck, and the dealer tables reported back that two of the hottest selling cards were Ichorid and Morningtide, two sides of the same recurring coin.

This was completely unprecedented. Now, I'm not the type to worry about losing my job. If you're good enough at what you do, you don't ask for unreasonable compensation, and you make yourself generally useful, a company that isn't going bankrupt is unlikely to let you go. However, there's an unwritten (or maybe it's written, not sure) rule in R&D that you don't mess with the real world. In other words, you don't give people undiscovered tech in the unlikely event that the FFL stumbed upon something that the rest of the world didn't. Because I had helped unleash a new deck on the scene that caused a major metagame shift, I was genuinely scared for a short while that I would be at least disciplined, if not actually fired. Luckily I think everyone involved realized that I was just as surprised as anyone else that the deck was as good as it was. I mean, what were the chances that there was a completely undiscovered archetype that would be one of the best decks in the format, given that the pros had been testing the format for months leading up to Worlds? In the end, to my great relief, it never caused an issue.

MTGO Vanguard

In late 2004, Rachel Reynolds was implementing all of the cards for MTGO but was looking for a side project as she still had some downtime between set deadlines. That project ended up being the Online Vanguard format. I was hugely excited about this and was named the lead of a small team tasked with designing the abilities as well as balancing the starting hand sizes and life totals. There were two primary reasons for my excitement:

  1. I'd always enjoyed the concept of Vanguard. Adding another layer of strategy and choice to the game, combined with the flavor of choosing a famous "character" from the game's fiction, resonated with me strongly. We already had collectible avatars on MTGO, so it made a lot of sense to give them some extra value by adding a gameplay effect in an optional format.
  2. I was a big fan of the old Shandalar computer game, and one of the many awesome things about it was the Astral set, a selection of cards that could only exist on a computer because of their heavy use of randomness, such as Aswan Jaguar. This was a chance to create some abilities that could only exist on MTGO.

I could write an entire post about the design process for the avatars, but I'll just focus on our major goals instead. We wanted the basic avatars that came with new accounts to have a simple ability that represented their color well, we wanted a selection of avatars with random effects that could only be done online, and we wanted to enable new and interesting decks that might not be strong enough in other formats. How did we do?

Well, decent. My favorite avatar out of the bunch was probably Akroma, with the following ability: "When a creature comes into play under your control, it gains two of the following abilities at random: flying, first strike, trample, haste, protection from black, protection from red, or vigilance." In our internal playtests you'd always hear people yelling "come on haste!" or "flying please!" and then swearing would generally ensue, either from their opponent when they hit or from the person with Akroma when they didn't. It had a low barrier to entry (all you had to was play creatures) and it tended to create interesting situations consistently, plus it matched the actual card perfectly.

Our biggest error was actually in the development stages. Elvish Champion was an avatar with the ability "You start the game with a 1/1 green Elf token that has ‘T: Add G to your mana pool.’" I was far too focused on the fact that the ability was only useful early in the game, and a single burn spell could easily set you back to playing an avatar-less game. To compensate we gave it 8 cards and 21 life, stats which are actually quite generous, and it dominated the early competitive Vanguard scene. It was somewhat inevitable that there would be a "best" avatar given the small size of the team, but it was extremely unfortunate that it happened to be this one, since it was so easy to slot into almost any competitive Standard deck without changing any cards whatsoever. Because of this we failed, at least early on, in our goal of making a unique format where different cards and decks would be powerful. The only consolation was that we had warned people up front that we'd be changing the stats if necessary. Eventually we removed a card and some life and gave other avatars a chance to shine.

The lesson here: when balancing objects in a system, spend some time thinking about if there are any that would be particularly damaging if they end up being better than you thought. (For example, a counterspell when a countermagic heavy deck is dominating the current metagame.) Either test those extensively, or if you don't have time, aim for a lower power level so that you have some extra room to spare if you're wrong. Or possibly both.

After the original batch was finished, I took on the responsibility of designing the two avatars for each new set release. The other design that stands out is Momir Vig and his ability of "X, Discard a card: Put a token into play as a copy of a random creature card with converted mana cost X. Play this ability only any time you could play a sorcery and only once each turn." It was inspired by a conversation I had with the programmers about an April Fool's feature that someone had once coded on a whim, where any spell that you cast would be replaced by another random spell with same mana cost. It didn't take long for me to realize that something similar would make for a perfect avatar.

The intent was to let you play a deck with a bunch of wacky situational cards that could be turned into creatures in a pinch, but the design ended up being incredibly successful in a way no one anticipated. It spawned its own format, Momir Basic, that was played with just the avatar and sixty basic lands. Hundreds of tournaments in that format have been run on MTGO, with the avatar rising in price to between $10 and $20 as demand fluctuated. Recently a Momir Event Pack was added to the store for $9.99 to ensure that people could find a copy of the avatar easily.

There was the occasional sentiment at Wizards that Momir Vig might be hurting profits by undermining people's desire to buy cards. I'm obviously biased, but I've always felt the opposite, that it was a clear win. I've heard plenty of stories of players creating MTGO accounts just based on the existence of the avatar. Yeah, some of those players probably never went on to buy any cards, but I'm sure many of them were tempted by the allure of drafts eventually. Along those lines, Momir Vig also did a great job of showcasing creatures from Magic's history, which could create demand for cards as people might go on to trade for those creatures to put them in their deck. And finally, it made a lot of money in straight up tournament entry fees.

Awhile ago Wizards stopped supporting the Vanguard format, and has discontinued giving the new avatars any abilities or gameplay effects. It's too bad, because it's sucked all of the fun out of collecting them for me, but I suppose they did a cost/benefit analysis and it came up short.

Well! So much for talking about Coldsnap, Time Spiral, or Planar Chaos in this installment. Next time it is. Thanks for reading! (Part Four is now available.)

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  1. Good Stuff Paul :)

  2. I’ve made one Magic Online purchase – the cards for the Dissension Release that got me Momir Vig. I haven’t spent money on MTGO since, but I keep thinking I might – and if I do, it will be because Momir has given me a low-cost opportunity to learn the interface. (I admit that Dissension turned me off of it – trying to handle multiple Graft triggers for each creature got really annoying. “No, I don’t ever want to put any +1/+1 counters on my opponents’ creatures – please stop asking me!”)

    • Yeah, I think they eventually added a “don’t ask me about grafting onto opponent’s creatures” option, although I just looked and can’t find it any more, so perhaps I’m making that up. I find the activated Phyrexian mana abilities from the current set to be just as annoying too.

      I’d imagine Lee Sharpe could probably run some data on how many players primarily play Momir Vig events, and then see how many of those players eventually buy additional cards. Would be interesting to see.

  3. The amazing thing about Momir Basic is how quickly it was discovered. People started playing it soon after its introduction in beta and by the end of the Dissension beta, it had become a popular format with the beta testers. Beta testers then shared the format when Dissension went live, and the rest, as they say, is history.

  4. I just wanted to thank you for your work on Vanguard. It was my favorite format by far because it let you build interesting, competitive decks, without having to put out the money for Standard staples. The caretaking of the format declined after Nagle took over, although I realize constantly balancing avatar abilities is Sisyphean. Since the format was axed competitively, I’ve spent much less time and money on magic, and drifted towards drafts.

    My favourite two avatars were Dakkon and Loxodon Hierarch. Dakkon was subtly powerful, since you (almost) never mulliganed, and could maindeck sideboard cards. Loxodon was great for all the weird decks it spawned like Hatching Plans + Zubera + Magus of the Disk. Or comboing with Lorwyn Elementals.

    Anyway, thanks again.

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